Hal is now six and a half and enjoying writing is more important than correct spelling. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
Hal’s school is admirably proactive in getting parents involved in their children’s reading and writing activities and last month I was invited to a brief talk on how they teach writing to year 1 kids. After the teacher had finished her spiel, which was mostly about literacy benchmarks for the year, the children were asked to collect their writing books and then to sit down with their mums and dads to show them what they had been doing.
Item number one in Hal’s book was a letter to Santa Claus. ‘Dere Santa,’ it began. ‘Plees can yu send me sum xbots…’ The letter went on with further requests (most of which were identical to those of his male class mates), but what struck me most about it was the teacher’s written comment at the end. ‘Good writing Hal,’ it read, ‘but don’t forget your finger spaces and full stops.’
This rather surprised me. Finger spaces (the children are told to put their finger down after each word to separate it from the next) are obviously important if the writing is going to be comprehensible, as are full stops. But what shouted at me from Hal’s writing book was the spelling. Words were mis-spelt here, there and everywhere yet the teacher hadn’t made a single comment about spelling. ‘Oh we don’t teach spelling at this stage,’ Hal’s teacher explained to me when I asked her. ‘We want them to enjoy writing first. They don’t do spelling till year 3.’
The more I thought about this, the more sense it began to make. English spelling, as I mentioned in an earlier diary, is a nightmare of irregularity and incredibly easy to get wrong. And it is easy to imagine that kids with less retentive memories, or less interest, finding that they are always getting their writing wrong, will feel disempowered and demoralised. Give them free rein with spelling however, and writing can feel like a skill that you can master, and can be fun because of it.
I’ve seen a little example of this over the last week. Hal sat down and did a series of drawings making up a storyboard for a cartoon film about an alien invasion. Aliens land, aliens demand that humans surrender, Doctor Who arrives, aliens are routed. Once he had done the drawings Hal told me that he wanted each one to have a caption. I helped him a bit with some of the difficult words (Alien and Spaceship for example), but some of the writing he just did off his own bat – ‘Give us your planit’ was my favourite.
Hal is not a child to do things that he doesn’t enjoy. And I am absolutely sure that he wouldn’t have wanted to add captions to his pictures if he didn’t have good associations with writing. And if he had been being badgered about incorrect spelling the whole time (the traditional kind of literacy education I had) I am pretty sure that he would have been turned right off. So I’m all in favour of a spelling free for all now. Make writing fun first, and worree abot gitting the speling rite latr.